Pollution, climate change, and other environmental issues are connected to social issues such as racism, poverty, equality, and human rights. Environmental justice stems from this concept, and the environmental/ social connections do not get enough attention. For many people, it is difficult to admit that we have a problem with racism, equality, or other social problems. And yes, I am talking about in the United States (as well as globally). So here are some things to consider:
Landfills, chemical plants, hazardous waste sites, other places with lots of pollution. The real estate value in those areas is less than the clean suburbs or the pristine lakeside properties. So guess who ends up living near the pollution? People with less money. Unfortunately in the United States, this often means minorities. One source found that minorities in the US have “nearly 40% more exposure to deadly airborne pollutants than whites”. This source found similar trends.
People are dying because of this, but we don’t hear anything about it. “Researchers estimate that if nonwhites breathed the lower NO2 levels experienced by whites, it would prevent 7,000 deaths … each year”. That is crazy! 7,000 people will be killed this year because of environmental injustice. If a terrorist killed 7,000 people, the world would be in an outrage. But, if we as a society kill 7,000 people based on social injustice and pollution, no one cares. If you want to read a specific example from Chicago, check this out. Also, here is an example about Cancer Alley in Louisiana which is home to primarily African-American people.
We have a lot of problems with inequality and social justice in the United States, but climate change is also causing social concerns around the world. “A 2014 Department of Defense report identifies climate change as the root of government instability that leads to widespread migration, damages infrastructure and leads to the spread of disease”. One example is in Syria which is suffering the worst drought on record. Drought caused instability for farmers and the food supply. Political instability followed which then allowed terrorist groups to thrive. Millions of people have been affected as victims and refugees. Are they refugees from war or climate change?
Environmental justice also crosses national boundaries, and we in the United States are guilty! In the late 1980s, a barge of hazardous incinerator ash from Philadelphia couldn’t find anywhere in the United States to dump the waste. Instead, they went looking for poor, unsuspecting countries which is how they came upon Haiti. They dumped tons of this hazardous waste on a beach in Haiti. How outrageous is that?! This type of injustice is still happening as companies from developed nations export their hazardous waste to countries with less environmental controls. A United Nations report from 2015 found that 90% of global electronic waste is illegally traded or dumped, and I’ll bet that none of it was dumped in the US or any other wealthy nations.
Those examples from the US, Syria, and Haiti are just part of the story. Connections between climate change, pollution, racism, and social injustice can be found in many other cases. So the next time you wonder if climate change matters, ask yourself if lives matter. And if so, which lives matter?